The administration's desperate plan to stay the course in Iraq

December 07, 2005|By STEVE CHAPMAN

CHICAGO -- When President Bush went to the Naval Academy the other day, he spoke in front of a sign that could have been an answer on Jeopardy. It had the words "Plan for Victory." The question: What did the Bush administration fail to do when it invaded Iraq?

Back then, his slogan could have been "Assume Victory." Expecting a quick and conclusive triumph, the administration blithely figured we would get out as quickly as we got in.

Bad guess.

The plan for victory that Mr. Bush laid out sounds pretty much like what he has been promising to do ever since his original non-plan turned out to be a bust. We will build democratic institutions, train Iraqi forces, combat the insurgents and eventually achieve a victory that will let American troops come home.

The problem is that so far, the plan has not worked. But the promise of what we will accomplish in Iraq is no longer the centerpiece of the administration's case.

By now, it's obvious that the best we can hope for is to leave the country with a semi-stable government, democratic or not, that will take over the fight so we can excuse ourselves.

So the White House has largely shifted its argument to a negative one: Whatever the costs of staying, the consequences of leaving would be worse. Keeping our troops in Iraq might not bring success, but it staves off catastrophe.

The president made a version of this argument in Annapolis. "If we were not fighting and destroying this enemy in Iraq, they would not be idle," he declared. "They would be plotting and killing Americans across the world and within our own borders."

But if this is true, why would we ever want to leave? If the enemy's main goal is to kill Americans, turning the war over to Iraqi forces won't solve the problem. On the contrary, it will leave the insurgents no choice but to come after us right here at home.

By this logic, the only sensible thing to do is stay in Iraq until we kill them all.

No serious person thinks that is going to happen anytime soon. If Mr. Bush believes what he says, he should be preparing us all to stick it out for another decade - which is how long our commander in Iraq, Gen. George Casey Jr., expects the insurgency to last.

Mr. Bush prefers not to admit that the only reason Iraq is a terrorist hotbed is that we invaded and fostered chaos. Not only have foreigners come into Iraq with the aspiration of killing Americans, but Iraqis have joined the jihad as well.

Daniel Benjamin, co-author of the new book The Next Attack: The Failure of the War on Terror and a Strategy for Getting It Right, says, "The `flypaper' theory is fine if the number of terrorists is finite." In fact, our presence is obviously inflaming anti-Americanism and creating more terrorists, in Iraq and elsewhere. General Casey says the U.S. role is "one of the elements that fuels the insurgency."

An equally lame argument for staying comes from Vice President Dick Cheney. He says that the terrorists hit the American homeland on 9/11 because our retreats from Lebanon and Somalia indicated "they could strike us with impunity." If we leave Iraq, he warns, these enemies will be emboldened once again.

What is he leaving out? Oh, yes - our invasion of Afghanistan, which proved once and for all that they cannot strike the American homeland with impunity. That should give pause to any terrorists who think they can use Iraq as a base to hit New York or Washington. But in Mr. Cheney's strange view of the world, Afghanistan counts for nothing with our enemies.

Leaving Iraq, he insists, would tell the bad guys they can attack us at home. But leaving Iraq after invading Afghanistan would actually tell them something very different: You may get away with attacking Americans in Iraq, but you can't get away with attacking Americans in America. So if we leave Iraq, they will have no good options for attacking us.

At this point, the administration's arguments have the ring of desperation. They're the equivalent of telling a man who picks up a beehive and gets stung by dozens of bees that whatever he does, he must not let go of the hive.

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Mondays and Wednesdays in The Sun. His e-mail is schapman@tribune.com.

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